Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Diversity VIII: Scott Returns to Quality... And Value

So, Scott brings up an interesting post by August Schulenberg (whose blog I also could swear I'd been subscribed to... what is going on, Google Reader?)

Schulenberg introduces a second concept, value, as distinct from quality:
Quality is concerned with the use of a medium within an aesthetic tradition.
Value is concerned with the role of that tradition within a society.
Quality looks at how art works. Value looks at why.
Okay. That's not how I'd have defined the two words, but that's a semantic difference and one that's unimportant -- let's use the way he speaks right now.

Scott acknowledges that the first half of his post uses the word quality to mean quality, and the second half of the post uses quality to mean value, in the Schulenburg formulation (I hope you're glad I used those two words back-to-back!). He acknowledges that his shift in the use of the word formed a contradiction in his argument. So we're in agreement again.

It was this that led me to propose the play lottery model: sort out those plays that we all would likely agree don't meat[sic] levels of dramaturgical competence, and then, at the point where agreement yields to individual values (which we sometimes call "subjective," as in "quality is subjective"), allow chance to take over. Why? Because otherwise, the decisions that are made concerning plays that are produced are strongly reliant on what devilvet calls "resonance," i.e., the way a particular play vibrates within my individual soul, what I personally "value."

In this passage, it doesn't look like quality and value are two separate ideas anymore. Instead, "competence" (which sounds to me like "basic quality") is merely the approximation of the most "shared value." But at the same time, if we're talking about one group of folks (the "in-crowd") trying to evaluate the basic quality of another group of folks (the disenfranchised), they're going to use their "shared values" (read: monoculture) to resist another group of folks' shared values.

I think that most of the screening that shuts out diversity actually happens at the "basic competence" level, rather than the "subjective resonance" level.

Take a play like The Lily's Revenge. It reflects a set of values that are decidedly not in the monoculture: significant parts of it are attacks on theater, the basic message is that of free love in the actual, literal sense, it attacks the institution of marriage (not "hey gays should have marriage too" but "marriage is an oppressive, out-dated institution" -- a lot of people who are perfectly comfortable with gays marrying would be very, very hesitant to imagine a culture without marriage, no matter how falsely that construct resonates today in the era of Clinton/Sanford/Woods/Spitzer/Paterson/Edwards/Palin/Giuliani/Rove/etc.).

Suppose I was going to try and establish "basic competence" about this play, as a package
  • It has 40 characters
  • It has 6 director
  • It has five acts and spans five hours long
  • Ass-licking occurs frequently
  • The audience is forbidden from using their cell phones during act breaks as part of the show
  • Much of the dialog is lifted verbatim from an extremely esoteric book of essays by a quite out-of-the-mainstream philosopher in extremely technical language
  • Act two is written in verse and haiku
The show, on paper, looks like it will take a fortune to produce, take far more man/woman/other-power than you could ever expect, and is very, very likely to alienate even the avant garde theater audience. I'm fairly sure any average measure of competence would drop that script in the "REJECTED" pile without so much as a glance-through.

Why did that show get produced and wind up on many New York critics' top-ten theater lists? Because of resonance. This show resonated for the producing team very strongly, and they were willing to fight for it as hard as they could.

And then, separately, there's this ending for Scott:
However, given that our commerical and regional theatres are mostly not producing using a permanent or even semi-permanent ensemble, but are instead jobbing in artists for individual projects, then wouldn't it be possible that an artistic team could be put together that was, in fact, passionate about a play that has been chosen via weighted lottery? Couldn't resonance be hired?
You can put together a team that's passionate about anything. If you watch talk shows as much as I do, you'll see some very, very delightfully passionate people who, unfortunately, are working on shows that nobody outside of their theater is passionate about. To borrow from a cultural touchstone, I'm fairly sure that the cast and producer of Moose Murders were passionate about their show. In fact, think about the people who knowing its reputation as one of the worst plays in history decided to stage it anyways. And hell -- maybe someone out there managed to turn Moose Murders into a relevant show. If they did, I hope they sent Frank Rich some tickets, because that man needs closure.

One of the most inspiring things I've ever heard in this industry was a Broadway understudy who told a group of students (including me) that if you strive to be the best person you can be, you're striving to be the best artist you can be. That person was understudying All Shook Up, which was one of the more morose theater-going experiences I've ever had.

So my feeling is actually getting stronger, that not only does a lottery system not improve diversity, it actually gives away quality without giving anything in return.
And if so, what happens to our belief that a commitment to diversity leads inevitably to lower quality? At what point do we give priority to our values?
I don't have a belief that a commitment to diversity leads inevitably to lower quality. I believe the following:
  1. Diversity can be grafted on, or grown in.
  2. Diversity that is grafted on lowers quality.
  3. Diversity that is grown in increases quality, because it increases resonance.
If we want to grow in diversity, we do have to water the diversity that's out there (give them more opportunities, fight on their behalf more, etc.), but at some point we have to tackle the roots of diversity. Arts education, not just for those who go to elite schools, but for those all over the country.

Again the demand for us to choose when we'd be willing to sacrifice "value" for diversity. It isn't us who believe that diversity will lower value, it's you, Scott. I just simply don't believe we will get more diversity with a lottery, not if there's a "basic competence" test -- and if there isn't a basic competence test, how will we get diversity?

I'm not saying that the lottery system wouldn't work sometimes. Obviously no matter how random an event is, eventually it comes true. I just think that the odds are lower than proactive attempts to massage towards betterness.

After all, wasn't one of your original contentions that the current system is basically random? If that is true, then why wouldn't it have surfaced the next great diverse writer? My answer is because a select needed few have too much power, and people don't have equal access to put their slips in the jar. I don't see how how a Lincoln Center lottery would fix that. But I can imagine it reducing diversity, as well as reducing value.

Unless your "Basic competence" test was really just a test of "is this playwright black." But I don't think that's what you were proposing, I really don't think so at all.

Anyways, I'm really glad that you're sticking by your guns, Scott. I'm sitting at home having come home early terribly ill, and it's a treat to sit here and distract myself with the big things in life.